Introduction: Acid Etched Steel Map - Marriage Proposal Commemorative Gift
My wedding anniversary is coming up and I never quite know what to give my wife. She's not the type that expects anything and would be completely happy if I didn't buy her a gift at all. Which makes me want to get her something truly special and unexpected that much more. I had been racking my brain trying to think of something special and was getting nowhere. Then it hit me, the idea for this Instructable came to me after we had to cancel our vacation plans for this summer due to the current pandemic. We had planned on going to a beach destination this year and oddly enough that reminded me of the evening I proposed to my wife. Let me explain, I proposed to my wife at sunset on a beach in Florida. I thought it might be a cool idea to make a map of the beach area and highlight the approximate spot where I proposed to her. We've been back to that same spot several times and we always setup near the spot I proposed its sort of become out spot.
I figured that it would be a little abstract looking and not so on the obvious as to what it actually was and what it represented. To the average person looking at the map it wouldn't really look like much, just a map or a piece of art, but my wife would know that it was our spot. Initially I thought about making this out of paper but I wanted something a little more permanent. Lately I have been experimenting more and more with acid etching so I decided to try and make this out of some scrap stainless steel.
Light Box or Window with Sunlight
1/8" Stainless Steel Flat Stock
Steel cutting Bandsaw or Angle Grinder
First thing I had to do was get a map that I could use to make the vinyl decal for etching. I used OpenStreetMap.Org because you can download a simple street map from there for free.
OpenStreetMap.org is like any map website just type the address into the search bar and hit enter. Once you find your map you click on the "share" icon, see pic 2, which then brings up the download button. Before hitting the download button make sure you have zoomed in or zoomed out of the map image to the desired aspect as your download will reflect what is on the screen.
Ideally you would use Adobe Illustrator to clean up the map and prepare it for the vinyl cutter however I don't have Adobe Illustrator nor do I know how to use it. So my process is a little more rudimentary. In Microsoft Paint I open the downloaded map. Make sure that you have the "Rulers" box checked this will give you an idea of how big the image is currently. I knew I wanted a final map that was 4 x 6 inches. So I had to resize the image, to do this in paint you click on "Resize" and in my case I wanted it smaller so I had to enter a smaller percentage number than 100. I guessed 60 which got me close to 4 x 6 then I just kept reducing the size by 5 percent until I got pretty close to 4 x 6 inches.
With the resizing complete I have to print it but first I have to make sure that the "Page Setup" is correct. I go to File>Print>Page Setup and make sure my selections match the last pic above. Most importantly is to make sure that under "Scaling" the "Adjust to" option is selected. This option makes sure that the map prints at 4 x 6 or whatever specific dimension you chose. Then I printed the map.
With the printed map in hand the next step is to trace the streets on to another sheet of paper. I used an expensive $17 light pad to trace the map. If you don't have a light pad you can always tape the paper to a window and trace the image that way as long as its a sunny day you should be good to go.
I make sure to tape the two pieces of paper, the printed map and the blank sheet of paper, together so they don't shift while I trace the image. I also used a ruler wherever I could and only resorted to tracing by hand when necessary. I wanted the lines to be as crisp as possible. Once I finished the initial tracing I went over all my lines with a black marker. I needed to make sure the line were as solid as possible so that I could turn it in to a vector.
Next I scanned the hand traced map and saved it as a jpeg on my desktop. Then I opened up the scanned image using Inkscape, which is a free software, that will convert the image in to a vector. I am not an expert on Inkscape and there are plenty of online tutorials that show you how to convert images in to vectors but this is how I do it.
With the file selected, actually click on the image otherwise no changes will be made. You know that the image is selected because you will see a box with adjustment arrows on all the corners and sides like in the 2nd pic above. Then I go to the menu bar click on Paths>Trace Bitmap which opens up a dialog box with several different options. The dialog box has a "Live Preview" box located about center lower portion of the box make sure that box is checked. In order to "refine" the lines of the image I adjust the "Brightness Cutoff" specifically the "Threshold" option. I adjusted it to .22 which worked for me, you may find that you need to adjust it higher or lower to get the desired effect. Basically here the lines are sort of cleaned up if there is any pixilation this will fix that which what we are after. The better and cleaner you tracing the better this will look.
Once you are happy with your image close the dialog box. The image on the screen will look the same but your adjusted image is actually right on top of the original image. So click on the image and drag it to the left of the original you want the image that is on top, see pic 5 above. Now click on the original image, see pic 6, you know its selected because of the box and arrows and then hit your delete key. Then click on your adjusted image and drag it back in to the original spot. Next you have to save the file, go to File>Save As and make sure you save it as a .svg file for your vinyl cutter.
I have a Cricut Vinyl cutter that I use to make my vinyl mask. If you do not have a vinyl cutter there are services out there that will make a vinyl decal for you, you just have to provide the image file. There are a ton of folks that use these machines to make custom items, you may have some one in your local area or even your neighborhood that does this as a side gig.
So in the Cricut software you upload the map image, since it is a .svg file it will automatically create the cut path. Next you save it and then you upload the image as a new project. I had to move my map and orient it to minimize cut waste. Once I was happy with the size and location I followed the machine prompts to cut the decal. The last pic shows what the cut decal looks like. The next step is to "weed" or remove the cut pieces from the vinyl and then attach the vinyl to some clear transfer tape. Set that aside for now and next prepare the steel to receive the vinyl decal.
A buddy of mine was getting rid of some scrap materials he had in his warehouse and he gave me some stainless steel transition moldings. These are flooring transition pieces they would use as a part of their installations when adjusting from one floor height to another. Its about 1/8 inch thick with a flat center strip that is just over 4 inches wide. I knew I wanted to use a piece of this so that is why I made my map 4 x 6 inches.
I measured, marked and cut out a piece that was 4 x 6 inches. I used my portable bandsaw table to make the cut but you can use an angle grinder for this as well.
I used my 4 x 36 inch belt sander to clean up my cuts. Then I used my orbital sander to sand the face of the metal since it had a few scratches. I got most of the scratches off then I switched to hand sanding the face of the steel plate up to 600 grit sandpaper. It wasn't perfect but did look a lot better when I was done.
Now it was time to apply the vinyl decal. This is a pretty basic process, with the vinyl on the transfer sheet you just have to line up the decal on the work piece. Then apply even pressure and try to squeeze out any air bubbles as you stick the vinyl down. Then remove the clear transfer tape and you are left with decal/stencil. Since I will be submerging this in acid I made sure to cover the entire backside of the steel plate with electrical tape. Anything that is not covered will get etched by the acid. Remember to cover your edges, you can use nail polish or a paint marker to cover those.
I found that the best way to etch metal is to suspend it face down in the acid but it shouldn't touch the bottom of the container. In order to do this I attached some Styrofoam pieces using hot glue to the back of the steel plate. The Styrofoam acts as a floatation device and will keep the piece face down in the acid with out touching the bottom of the container. Having the piece suspended upside down helps any material that is etched fall to the bottom of the container as opposed to just sitting in the lines you are trying to etch. Basically this helps prevent build up and you get a better etch.
I use Ferric Chloride mixed with water in a 1:1 ratio for my etching solution. This particular solution, which I store in the plastic container, was pretty old and has been used several times. The solution will weaken the more it is used which in turn will require longer etch times. I etched this piece for 2 hours.
*Make sure to wear proper PPE when working with acid. You can store the acid etch solution in plastic or glass containers but not in metal ones.
After 2 hours I removed the piece and dunk it in a container that has a water and baking soda mix. This will neutralize the acid and halt the etching process. I then dry it off and liberally spray the entire piece with Windex which will also help neutralize the acid.
I used a small brush and some red paint to color in the heart/location of the proposal. I also masked off the areas that I wanted to paint blue which represented the different bodies of water. After the paint dried I removed the vinyl and clean off any residue on the face.
Since this is 4 x 6 inches it can fit in a standard picture frame which was my first thought. However I decided to epoxy a small piece of scrap walnut to the back of the piece. I glued it slightly higher than the bottom of the steel plate so that it would lean back slightly on a flat surface. As an alternative you could use a small angle bracket or even drill a hole in the top and run some cord through it so that it could be hung on a wall.
I really like the end result even though I think the etch could be better. After making this I realized how this is a gift that can be tailored to fit any special moment. You could use this to commemorate a first date, or first kiss or your first marathon or any other special moment in your life. I haven't actually done the research but I would wager that 95% of our special moments occur while on earth which in turn means you can probably map exactly where you where at the time of said moment.
I hope this sparks an ember of inspiration and gives you an idea to build off of and or even replicate. Thanks for reading.
Runner Up in the